REO Speedwagon is an American rock band which grew in popularity in the Midwestern United States during the 1970s and peaked in the early 1980s. REO Speedwagon hits include “Keep On Loving You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling”. Both songs are power ballads that topped U.S. charts, the former being prototypical of the genre and appearing on the group’s most commercially successful album, Hi Infidelity, which also included the hit “Take It On The Run”, a song that peaked at number five on the U.S. charts. Earlier REO songs “Ridin’ the Storm Out”, “Golden Country”, “Roll with the Changes”, and “Time For Me To Fly” enjoy continuous rotation on classic rock radio stations.
REO Speedwagon, the 40 million record-selling band, took its name from the REO Speed Wagon, a truck manufactured by the REO Motor Car Company (the predecessor to today’s Nucor). (“R.E.O.” are initials of the company’s founder, Ransom Eli Olds, who also founded the Oldsmobile division of General Motors.) The name was suggested to fellow band mates by keyboard player Neal Doughty, who learned about the truck at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a class about the history of transportation.
REO Speedwagon was formed in the fall of 1967 by Doughty and dorm-mate drummer Alan Gratzer to play cover songs in campus bars. Numerous early personnel changes eventually resulted in Gary Richrath’s joining the band. Richrath was a Peoria, Illinois-based guitar player and prolific songwriter who brought original material to the band. With Richrath on board, the regional popularity of the band grew tremendously. The Midwestern United States remains an REO Speedwagon fan stronghold, and has its roots in this period of the band’s history.
Paul Leka, an East Coast record producer, brought the band to a recording studio, where it recorded original material for its first album. The lineup on the first album consisted of Doughty on keyboards, Gratzer on drums, Richrath on guitar, Gregg Philbin on bass, and singer Terry Luttrell.
The band’s debut album was the eponymous REO Speedwagon, released on Epic Records in 1971. One of the most popular tracks on this record was “157 Riverside Avenue.” The title refers to the Westport, Connecticut, address where the band stayed while recording in Leka’s studio in nearby Bridgeport, and remains an in-concert favorite.
Although the rest of the band’s line-up remained stable, REO Speedwagon switched lead vocalists three times for their first three albums. Luttrell left the band shortly after the group recorded its debut album, becoming the vocalist for Starcastle. He was replaced by Kevin Cronin. Cronin recorded one album with the band, 1972’s R.E.O./T.W.O., but left the band during the recording sessions for 1973’s Ridin’ the Storm Out because of missed rehearsals and creative disagreements. Ridin’ the Storm Out was completed with Mike Murphy on the microphone. Murphy stayed on for two more albums, Lost in a Dream and This Time We Mean It, before Cronin returned to the fold in 1976 and recorded R.E.O.
REO Speedwagon’s first live album, Live: You Get What You Play For (1977), was the band’s first real commercial success and was certified platinum. The band had always been dissatisfied with the producers on their studio albums, because they continually failed to capture on tape the quality of the band’s live show. The live album, which was self-produced, changed that. Indeed, all subsequent albums would have band members participating as producers.
Philbin was replaced with Bruce Hall in 1978, in time to record You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish. The album contained the first of many of the band’s Top-40 hits, “Roll with the Changes”. This was followed up in 1979 with the band’s hardest rocking album, Nine Lives.
The lineup was now set for the band’s most popular period. In 1980, REO Speedwagon released Hi Infidelity, which represented a change in the music from hard rock to more pop-oriented material. Hi Infidelity spawned several hit singles, including the Number One “Keep On Loving You” and the Number Five “Take It On the Run”, and remained on the charts for 65 weeks, 32 of which were spent in the Top Ten. It went on to become the biggest-selling rock record of 1981.
Good Trouble (1982) and Wheels Are Turnin’ (1984) were follow-up albums, which also did well commercially, the former containing the Number Two hit single “Keep The Fire Burnin’“ and the latter containing the Number One hit single “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and the lesser hits “One Lonely Night” and “I Do’ Wanna Kno”. In addition, the band performed at 1985’s Live Aid.
Life As We Know (1987) saw a decline in sales, but still managed to provide the band with a couple more hits, “In My Dreams” and “That Ain’t Love”.
However, by the end of the 1980s, the band’s popularity had waned and the group began to disintegrate. In 1988, the future was uncertain as Gratzer retired and Richrath was asked to leave.
The 1990 release The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken, with Bryan Hitt on drums and Dave Amato on lead guitar, was a commercial disappointment. These lineup changes were a stinging blow to many fans, especially those of the band’s harder-edged material from the 1970s, which was dominated by Richrath’s unique style on the guitar.
Shortly after his departure, Richrath assembled former members of the midwestern band, Vancouver, to form a namesake band, Richrath. After touring for several years, the Richrath band released Only the Strong Survive in 1992 on the Crescendo label. Richrath continued to perform for several years before disbanding in the late 1990s.
In the meantime, REO Speedwagon lost its recording contract with Epic, releasing Building the Bridge (1996) on the Priority/Rhythm Safari label. When that label went bankrupt, the album was released on the ill-fated Castle Records, which also experienced financial troubles. REO Speedwagon ultimately self-financed this effort, which failed to chart.
The commercial failure of the band’s newer material with its revised lineup demanded a change in marketing strategy. As a consequence, the band began re-releasing recordings from older albums with updated artwork and design.
From 1995 to the present, the band unleashed over a dozen compilation albums featuring their greatest hits, including 1999’s Ballads, which contained two new tracks. REO also released Arch Allies, a two-disc live album that also featured Styx. Since some songs from the set-list were left out, REO released Live Plus, which featured their entire concert. The record company also repackaged this same concert under different titles.
REO Speedwagon continues to perform mostly its older hits at county and state fairs, casinos, and clubs, and occasionally tours with other venerable classic rock bands such as Foreigner, Styx, Journey, Fleetwood Mac, and ZZ Top. In 2007, REO Speedwagon released Find Your Own Way Home, their first album of original material in eleven years.